In April 2007 Michael Vick’s dogfighting ring dominated the news. Outside the Lines and SportsCenter showed video of dogs in violent combat, and were stung by viewer backlash.One viewer wrote: “I'll be honest: I turned that story off when they started showing the tapes of the dog fights...that was one of the few times where I completely and totally disagreed with an ESPN decision. Dogfighting is awful, we know it's awful, you don't need to show the tapes.”
Those were the words of ESPN columnist Bill Simmons, in an online chat. Simmons laid bare the risk of graphic content. If he turned the channel, anybody might.
But that’s only half of the risk - viewers also turn away from indifference. Graphic content can hold or build an audience, in its appeal to the intellect, through effective journalism, and to the gut, through voyeurism.
In its decisions, ESPN must consider its own brand, as well as that of its parent company, Disney, says producer Ben Houser.
Yet, if ESPN uses graphic content for journalism, and another network uses it to exploit voyeurism, a cynical public might not make a distinction, or care.
This two-edged sword that is graphic content asks two subjective questions of producers: 1) is it too graphic? 2) is it necessary?
When Outside the Lines pushed to use the moment of contact - baseball against skull - in the Gunnar Sandberg story, Sandberg’s parents refused. The two diametrically opposed views reflect the nuance of the issue.
“Well, their motive was to protect the privacy of their child and their family,” said coordinating producer Tim Hays. “Our judgment is based on two completely different criteria; what's appropriate and what represents the best interest of our viewers. We have to make a call that balances those two factors. We wouldn't use a piece of video that is particularly gruesome or gratuitous, even if the viewer would like to see it. However, if we feel like it's an important part of the story, we have to consider it.”
Said Dwayne Bray, head of the Enterprise Reporting Unit: “We never want to be gratuitous. We use what we need to tell the story, and nothing more. If the storytelling is strong enough, we believe, then you don't need to exploit graphic or violent video images to enhance viewer engagement.”
How graphic is too graphic? Where is the line between necessary and gratuitous? The Radio Television Digital News Association counsels “particular compassion to victims of crime or tragedy” and offers up even more questions to help news organizations decide.
Lots of questions, no easy answers.
Producers say they weigh criteria on a story-by-story basis, but it also appears to be the case that it is weighed on a show-by-show basis.
The story about alleged pedophile Bobby Dodd, former head of the A.A.U, and his accuser, Ralph West, ran in December on Outside the Lines, while an abbreviated version ran on SportsCenter.
“SportsCenter decided - after some discussion - to bleep out the word ‘masturbate’,” said producer Carolyn Hong. “Outside the Lines did not bleep it out of our long piece...I understand that some of the staff were complaining that their kids would see the broadcast.”
Viewers were given a warning about the language in the lead-in to the story, Hong said. One broad area of agreement is that viewers should be warned if there is any doubt about the material.
Producer Martin Khodabakhshian recalled an HBO story about black market horse slaughter that did not warn viewers.
“They showed horsed being sliced through - it felt like the Silence of the Lambs,” said Khodabakhshian. “I felt offended that they didn’t warn us this was coming.”
Beyond that, producers apply their own rules of thumb.
Jose Morales, in his piece on motocross riders, used crashes in which the injuries were not permanent, though he would not use the fatal crash of Jeremy Lusk, nor would he have used the moment of impact - if he had obtained it - that paralyzed Stephen Murray.
“I think it’s fair to say that the degree of injury has an influence on my decision,” said Morales.
On the other hand, producer Yaron Deskalo said that, in his 2010 piece on the playing fields of Bhopal, India, he did not hesitate to use rows of dead bodies from the 1984 pesticide factory disaster “because there was not a lot of blood, which is the danger.”
E:60 executive producer Andy Tennant advises special caution “on stories involving dogs, horses and children.”
The time slot of a show is a factor, producers said. A weekend show in the morning or afternoon could have a larger viewership of children. Parental caution should be advised early and often for questionable material.
E:60 coordinating producer Michael Baltierra suggests more restraint with domestic stories than with international, because the emotional impact is greater if the image is closer to home.
“You probably wouldn’t show a severed head in Cleveland,” he said.
To that point, graphic content is defined by community and cultural standards, which vary from region to region, country to country, and are in constant flux. But as technology evolves, and citizen journalists feed You Tube and social media, community and cultural standards change. Today’s graphic content may be tomorrow’s elevator music.
Which explains why, in the future, Yaron Deskalo’s decision not to air a flapping skull in Bahrain will be even more difficult.
“The definition of what a journalist is has changed,” Deskalo said. “Those of us trying to tell a balanced story have to be more aware of what is being shown across the full spectrum.”
Posted by Steve Marantz on January 19, 2012